Mark Riley: NATO in Ukraine bind as ‘absurd’ failed membership bid exposes the West’s dilemma

Headshot of Mark Riley
Mark Riley
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Vilnius in July.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Vilnius in July. Credit: EPA

Anthony Albanese had an inkling that the large crowd swelling in the centre of Vilnius in July wasn’t there to see him.

He was right.

The thousands streaming past Mr Albanese’s hotel in the Lithuanian capital were heading four blocks up the road to Lukiskiy Square.

Sign up to The Nightly's newsletters.

Get the first look at the digital newspaper, curated daily stories and breaking headlines delivered to your inbox.

Email Us
By continuing you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

They’d been told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky might make a surprise appearance there, at a pro-Ukrainian rally.

The rally had been organised to coincide with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s annual summit, taking place on the outskirts of the city.

Organisers wanted to put some public pressure on the NATO leaders while they were in town, encouraging them to support Mr Zelensky’s demand for his country to be granted full membership of their group.

A large roar echoing down the street told the Australian press pack travelling with Mr Albanese that the Ukrainian leader had, indeed, decided to address the rally on his way to the summit.

Plans for a news conference with Albanese were quickly put on hold, as we scooped up our cameras and followed the crowd down to the square.

“Glory to Ukraine!” Zelensky declared as he took centre stage at the event.

“Glory to the heroes!” the Lithuanian crowd replied.

Anthony Albanese and Jens Stoltenberg
Australia appreciates being part of a summit in Vilnius, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told NATO. (AP PHOTO) Credit: AP

Zelensky had brought with him a tattered Ukrainian flag from the war-ravaged town of Bakhmut as a symbol of the resistance his people were putting up to the invading Russian troops.

He said the defence of Bakhmut was preventing Vladimir Putin’s forces from breaking through into neighbouring countries, like Lithuania.

The Lithuanian President, Gitanas Nauseda, told the crowd that by putting up that resistance the Ukrainian people were paying the highest possible price for entry into NATO — that of their own blood.

It was a stirring display. And the poignancy of the venue did not escape most of the Lithuanian locals there to hear the Ukrainian leader speak.

Across the road from Lukiskiy Square is a large and imposing building that cast a long shadow over the people, literally and metaphorically.

It was the former headquarters of the KGB during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda
Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda is disturbed by the presence of Yevgeny Prigozhin in Belarus. (EPA PHOTO) Credit: EPA

Official records estimate that up to 1000 Lithuanians were tortured and killed in the basement of that building between 1944 and the 1960s.

The Nazis had used it before that as their Gestapo headquarters. It was from there that they orchestrated an unspeakable genocide that took the lives of more Jews in Lithuania than the Holocaust did in Germany.

Today, it stands as the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights — its exhibits and displays providing constant reminders of the unimaginable horrors perpetrated within its walls during those times.

“We must never, ever look back to Moscow!” Zelensky entreated the crowd, inspiring another roar of support that continued to ring out as he left to take his message to NATO leaders.

“He is an inspiration to the people of Ukraine,” Albanese said as his delayed news conference eventually got under way, a short walk down the road.

“I think far greater than that, he is an inspiration to all those around the world who believe in the rule of law, who believe in national sovereignty and who believe a small state like Ukraine should not be brutalised by a large neighbour.”

But the summit decided against granting Zelensky’s wish of immediate NATO membership.

Being part of the group would give Ukraine the protection of Article 5 of the NATO charter, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all.

Anthony Albanese attends the NATO summit in Madrid, 2022
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will attend his second NATO summit, in Lithuania in July. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS) Credit: AAP

NATO members fear that doing that would almost immediately turn the invasion of Ukraine into World War III.

Instead, they are offering Ukraine “a pathway to membership” once the war is over.

Zelensky labelled the decision “absurd”.

Albanese said it was a matter for NATO.

In the meantime, NATO and Australia will continue to arm Ukraine so it can hold back Putin’s forces in Bakmuht — for the sake of Europe and the world.

And the people of Vilnius will continue to praise the heroes in the hope they are never made to look back at Moscow.

Latest Edition

The front page of The Nightly for 19-04-2024

Latest Edition

Edition Edition 19 April 202419 April 2024

World on edge as Israel hits Iran in missile strike.